Interpretation for Archeologists   6. Issues of Sensitivity   Distance Learning

Language and Terminology

One component to sensitive interpretation is being aware of the impact of language. Some terms carry historical weight that is derogatory or offensive to visitors. As part of their Knowledge of the Resource, interpreters learn various terms or names for a people, place, event, or artifact and should be prepared to adjust their words to be sensitive to visitors without compromising the accuracy or message of the interpretation..

Scenarios where language may come into play include:

  • An interpreter prepares to read out loud a 19th-century letter that includes the "n-word." The interpreter explains, first, that the letter includes offensive language and another word will be substituted out of respect.
  • A group from the nearby reservation is visiting the park. Before beginning the talk, the interpreter engages the group by asking about tribe names and terms for various places and events. The interpreter weaves terminology into the talk by discussing multiple perspectives and their impact on history.
  • A visitor complains that the interpreter isn't using the "right" term or phrase to describe a cultural group. The interpreter explains why they use the term, acknowledging that the visitor's view is one of multiple perspectives. (For example, a group may prefer to go by certain terms over other terms, for example, Native American, American Indian, or by tribe name.)
  • An international visitor uses the same words to describe different things in their own countries. Seeing a confused expression, the interpreter stops to make sure that the meaning of the words and their historical contexts are clarified to all.

For Your Information

Morgan, Mark and Kai Qiao, 2016, Multiculturalism, Language Barriers, and Service Quality, Journal of Interpretation Research 21(1).

The authors used nps.gov "Contact Us" boxes to ask if parks offered information translated to Chinese for international visitors. Of the 370 national parks queried, less than 18% had any information for Chinese visitors. Some managerial implications for Asian inclusiveness are discussed.

MJB/EJL